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Meet-up websites

A spate of new, local websites touts group socializing. One writer logs on to find out if they deliver.

PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

Open and bar are two magic words that lure me to Public House, where CitySwarmChicago.com is holding a meet-up. I strap on an I’m-of-age wristband, order a glass of red and take stock of the scene. Some four dozen young professionals, clad in business-casual attire, stand in clusters, drinking and chatting.

CitySwarm, one of a few new Web-based social-events websites, aims to provide a platform for Chicagoans to mingle—for less. Like Groupon, CitySwarm leverages the power of group purchasing to provide users with deals, such as tonight’s event, which costs $10 for a one-hour open bar.

I’m relieved to see that, save for a portable blackjack table, there’s no infrastructure in place to force socialization; I’m a meet-up amateur and feared wearing a name tag or getting matched speed-date style.

The premise works: I feel comfortable approaching a trio of women near the bar. They confirm that they’re here for CitySwarm (the bar is open to the public, so not everyone is cashing in on the deal), and though they vibe friendly, I get the impression they aren’t overly excited to be BFFs with me. “This is our girls night out,” explains a blond, before turning back to her conversation. Luckily, I came with a girlfriend, too, and I talk to her in between chats (the charms of Portland, Oregon; owning an Internet biz) with CitySwarm participants.

“People should think of CitySwarm as the friend who does all the planning, so you can just show up, have fun and take advantage of group pricing,” says founder Lindsay Saewitz. Activities include a climbing class at the Lakeshore Athletic Club ($30) and a BYO drinking-and-drawing class at Palette and Chisel ($30).

Because Saewitz markets events to a specific audience (young, social Chicagoans between the ages of 25 and 40), she hopes CitySwarm will attract a more mainstream crowd than other, older online social-networking platforms, such as Meetup.com, in which groups are anchored by an often-quirky special interest (maybe swing dancing or Magic: The Gathering).

Meetup.com does have general-interest groups, like the Happy Hour Institute of Chicago, devoted to “the advancement of happy hours and brunch.” For comparison’s sake, I pop by one of the group’s after-work happy hours at Ceres Café in the Loop. Maybe it’s the more formally dressed corporate crowd (many wear business suits and wield business cards; I’m dressed in jeggings and motorcycle boots); I never feel quite at ease. After two drinks and a quick conversation with a friendly (and also be-jeaned) computer programmer, I head for the exit.

The stiff meet-up isn’t my scene—which makes me curious about how to identify which Web-based social events are the surest bets for good drinking with friendly people. For help, I reach out to social-networking guru Brandon Zeman, who does his best to wrangle the most informative or entertaining events on his website, Chicago Tweetups. Zeman created the site back in 2008 to sync the local social-networking events he heard about via blogs, Facebook and Twitter. “It seemed like an obvious need,” he says. “I realize the value in meeting in person and developing further relationships.”

Zeman assures me that while most Tweetup attendees belong to “the whole social-media online-marketing tech scene,” I—an artsy writer chick whose personal Twitter account goes inactive for months at a time—would be welcome at any event. And so, after scrolling through Zeman’s picks, I pop by ROOF at theWit hotel for a gathering of local Twitter aficionados heading to South by Southwest in March. (I’m attending this year, so it seems like a good fit.) I’m a bit surprised to discover only four other attendees, all male alpha geeks and a good 15 years older than me. But Zeman is right: Though an outlier, I feel welcome. Over beers and fries, they school me on how to crash the best parties at SXSW and turn me on to their favorite social-networking groups, such as Grubwith.us (users meet over pre-purchased family-style meals). It’s far from my typical Wednesday night, but I have to say: I’m glad I logged on.

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